The city of Wellington, Kansas, lies just 7 miles east of the cattle trail of the 1870’s that led to the largest cattle market of its time in the entire world. While those days are over 120 years gone, it is only fitting that those of us who call this area home reflect on those times and events, and be aware of what a rich heritage is connected with what came to be called the Chisholm Trail.
Little known to many other than historians, is the fact that an ambitious 30 year old man named Joseph G. McCoy probably did more than any other one individual to establish cattle drives up the route that was later to be called the Chisholm Trail.
The forward looking and fairly wealthy McCoy was a cattle trader from Springfield, Illinois, who came westward into Kansas searching for the best location to establish a railhead for loading cattle to be shipped to the eastern states, where shortages of beef were widespread because of the Civil War.
He had learned that wild cattle brought to Mexico by Coronado, had multiplied and migrated northward into Texas, and nearly six million longhorns were free to be had by those willing to round them up. The value of the Texas longhorns was low in the sparsely populated state due to their abundance, and Texans were beginning to get wind of Kansas markets, but were afraid to drive herds northward, not knowing for sure where they could be sold.
During his efforts to establish what would soon become the world’s largest cattle market in Abilene, Kansas, McCoy enlisted the help of Jesse Chisholm in showing cattle drivers the route he had used since 1865 across the Oklahoma Indian Territory to and from his trading post in Wichita. The first year, 1867, 35,000 cattle came up the trail, and then McCoy sent representatives to Texas advertising the route, and took out ads in newspapers and dispersed circulars throughout Texas advertising the trail and cattle market. As a result, 75,000 came up the trail in 1868; 350,000 in 1869; 300,000 in 1870; and the best year of all was 1871, when 600,000 were driven up the trail.
After contracting with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to receive $1 for every carload of cattle shipped from Abilene, he built the first hotel and stockyards in Abilene. Unscrupulous KPR managers failed to pay McCoy the money they owed him. Bankrupt and nearly broke, he died in Kansas City, October 18, 1915.
Jesse Chisholm’s life was spent without any idea on his part, that he would ever be known as an historical character, and he died without considering that he was, or ever would be, known other than an ordinary trader. The route he laid out was commonly called Chisholm’s Trail in what is now Blaine County, Oklahoma. He died in March, 1868, at the age of about 62.
Courtesy of the Chisholm Trail Museum, Wellington.